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The History of wikiHow in 7 Fascinating wikiHow Articles

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wikiHow

Spend enough time looking stuff up on the Internet, and you’ll eventually run into the weird, fascinating, addictive, and surprisingly poignant world known as wikiHow. Want to know How to Be Sophisticated, Become a Writer, Survive in Federal Prison, Make the Letters of the English Alphabet, Kiss, or Get Six Pack Abs? Here is a place where a wondrous amalgam of human experience can show you the way. You may, in fact, be asked to share your own expertise in, say, dating, grilling zucchini, annoying your brother, or seizing opportunities, to name a few. It may be inevitable that you’ll be sucked in still further by hitting the “random article” button and find yourself learning How to Become a Musician, Survive a Long Fall, Concentrate on Studies, Make Candelabras from Old Bottles, or Treat a Migraine.

Tech entrepreneur Jack Herrick launched the site ten years ago after selling his previous venture, eHow. He had a clear mission—to “help anyone on the planet learn how to do anything”—which he decided couldn’t be achieved through content farming. Instead, he launched the wiki site, allowing for as many volunteers as possible to share their hard-won experiential knowledge. Now, the site has more than a million users, 183,000 articles, and 22 paid staffers. (The most thorough articles might have dozens or hundreds of “co-authors.”) It has turned down multiple venture capital offers in order to stay focused on its mission, instead making its profits mostly from Google ads and by remaining headquartered in a house in Palo Alto, California. 

In honor of its decade anniversary, here’s a look at wikiHow’s history, told through seven of its biggest, best, strangest, and most useful posts.

1. How to Climb the Stairs with a Broken Leg

Matt Garcia may be only 19, but he’s had plenty of life experiences to share via wikiHow articles. The 21 articles started by the Canadian biology student include this very specific set of instructions, which he wrote while recovering from surgery. He has a heart condition and ended up on life support after having a heart attack in his mid-teens. One of the tubes required for the machines caused nerve damage to his left leg, putting him in a cast and on crutches. “It did feel really good to share that knowledge,” Garcia says.

In fact, many posts come out of users’ real-life experiences. One of community manager Krystle Chung’s favorite articles tackles How to Toilet Train Your Cat: “The part that I get a kick out of is one of the tips is, ‘Do not teach your cat to flush.’ It turns out your cat will flush all day long. You couldn’t hire someone to research that tip. Somebody actually found out the hard way.”

2. How to Love

The home improvement, cooking, and health articles make sense: They are clear processes with specific steps or problems with straightforward solutions. But some of  wikiHow’s most popular posts might as well be titled How to Be Human: They address kissing, getting a girl to like you, getting over a breakup, and knowing if a guy likes you, among other emotional topics. If only a computer could spit out answers to all of life’s dilemmas, right? Maybe it can’t exactly do that, but it can at least help. “It’s almost as if you have a friend to talk to when you read these,” says wikiHow COO Elizabeth Douglas. “Wikipedia is all factual information, things that are true or false. You don’t find the depth and the breadth and the empathy and the understanding of humans there. wikiHow is about people sharing their experience with others.”

3. How to Help a Spouse With Depression

Nicole Willson, a 33-year-old in Portland, Oregon, has been active on wikiHow since its earliest days, attracted to the idea because of her master’s degree in library science. And though she’s started more than 100 articles, her research standards and expertise make her even better at improving others’ work. When she first encountered the post on helping a spouse with depression, for example, it included tips about taking your partner out for a nice dinner. “If someone is chronically depressed,” she says, “that’s not going to help.” With her edits and others’, it’s become a thorough guide with an eye toward legitimate mental health resources.

In another article, about how to treat a common cold, she spotted a recommendation to get a Slurpee from 7-Eleven. “In those cases, I look for reliable sources for information to add,” she says. “It’s about information literacy. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Of course, that’s exactly why wikiHow—or any wiki—engenders skepticism. The site does have rules about what kinds of topics can be posted (in short, nothing that can cause harm) and has hundreds of volunteers as well as a few paid staffers reviewing every post. But Willson is also proof that the system mostly works: Some users might have good ideas for posts, even if they don’t have the knowledge to back them up. Others can come along and add their knowledge. As contributor Betsy Megas says, “The fastest way to a good page is a bad page.” 

4. How to Make Jello Shots

Willson has also used her research skills for less healthy topics, like contributing to wikiHow’s vast Jello Shot oeuvre. (Besides this introductory article that Willson started, there are also separate entries on specific kinds of Jello shots, from those including caffeine to various flavors to theme-party ideas.) “That’s what I like about wikiHow,” she says. “You’re not going to see this stuff in Martha Stewart Living. You don’t have to just do articles around what gets you ads.”

Maybe Martha Stewart and her ilk should reconsider, though, given the readership such entries attract. “It’s fun to see how the traffic changes as days and weeks go on,” Herrick says. “On New Year’s Eve you see How to Make Jello Shots spike, then like clockwork the next morning it’s How to Get Rid of a Hangover.” 

5. How to Sew a Cloth Baseball

Lois Wade made her first edit as a registered wikiHow user in 2007 and soon found herself relying on the site for what she calls her “frugal-to-a-fault” lifestyle. (Not surprisingly, she makes her living as a bookkeeper, based in Rancho Cordova, Calif.) She helped her teenaged son make a duct-tape wallet using wikiHow instructions, then started writing on the site herself with How to Sew a Cloth Baseball. (Her son wanted a pin cushion for home ec class that wasn’t that standard tomato-with-attached-strawberry.) Since then, she’s started more than 200 articles, including How to Make a Kitchen Towel Angel and How to Design and Sew Cold Weather Mitts for Drop Handlebars. “It’s dumbfounding,” she says of the online feedback she’s gotten. “If I advertised in my home area, ‘Come Learn How to Make a Towel Angel,’ I might, if I were lucky, get 10 or 15 people to come over. But on wikiHow, I’ve got millions.” That’s all the motivation she and many others like her need: “I just like helping people. I don’t watch a lot of TV. This is my entertainment, and I don’t have to wait for this show to come on.”

6. How to Escape from a Sinking Car

“It’s one of those things where you’d think it’s a joke article,” Herrick says, “but it turns out this actually happens pretty frequently.” About 400 people die this way every year, and it’s a particular problem in Canada, where 10 percent of drowning deaths happen in vehicles. “We get a lot of people writing and saying that reading about what to do in this situation eases their anxiety,” he says.

These response-to-emergencies articles have demonstrated real results: wikiHow staff knows of at least two babies who have been delivered using wikiHow instructions, and one person who got critical medical attention thanks to How to Recognize the Warning Signs of a Stroke. Such articles have prompted wikiHow to invest in careful translation of the site into 12 other languages. How to Recognize the Symptoms of Appendicitis, for example, is particularly popular in Spanish.

7. How to Change the Oil in Your Car

Megyas, a mechanical engineer in Santa Clara, California, has started lots of practical articles, tackling everything from fixing a running toilet to couch-surfing. Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of such topics, she’s encountered a surprising number of heated debates among contributors: When she edited an article on How to Change the Oil in Your Car, for instance, she found out “how many people have strong opinions about how long you should let the oil drip out.” All of the frequent users have encountered clashes with others over article edits, but also say wikiHow is known for its sanguine approach to “edit wars.” The company’s leaders have worked to instill a culture of niceness—which emphasizes positive feedback and personal contact—that frequent users cite as the reason they’ve contributed so much. “We are nice to our community members,” Douglas says, “and we encourage them to be nice.” They even hold yearly gatherings for the active contributors, and the frequent users often speak of the site as “we” in conversation. “I find it hard to be offline for very long because of the community,” Garcia says. “It’s so hard to not be with them.”

All images via wikiHow.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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